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A NEW ROMANCE: Beth Yahp, Margo Daly & Lorraine Falconer, eds. My Look’s Caress: A Collection of Modern Romances

11 Feb

Beth Yahp, Margo Daly & Lorraine Falconer, eds. My Look’s Caress: A Collection of Modern Romances (Local Consumption Press, 1990). Published in Southerly No. 4, 1991.

Although I have avoided reading any of the plethora of recent anthologies of “erotic writing”, I have followed the debate which has grown up around them in the review pages of the various magazines and journals with some interest. The debate has, predictably, focused mainly on the meaning of the term “erotic” and, in particular, the difference between erotica and pornography. There also always appears to be someone or some group whose sexuality is ignored or misrepresented. The truth, of course, is that “erotic” writing is one of those genres which becomes more elusive as you attempt to pin down a meaning for it.

My Look’s Caress: A Collection of Modern Romances falls just outside the rapidly burgeoning erotic anthology market, although some definitions of the erotic would view a number of the pieces collected in My Look’s Caress as a perfect example of the genre. While there is a lot of sex in the anthology, the editors, Beth Yahp, Margo Daly and Lorraine Falconer, were concerned with much more than the purely sexual. Romance, they point out in their introduction, ranges from the popular image of Mills and Boon to feminist analysis which sees romance as pure escapism which “reflects the dominant mascu­line ideology”. The editors, however, attempt to open the genre up even further: “When we thought ‘romance’ we thought: Confession. Intensity. Obsession. Hysteria. Passionfruit. The romantic sensibility. Longing. Exotic places. The forbidden. The erotic. Nostalgia, loss, regret. Pulp romances. Repul­sion/attraction. Ecstatic revelation. Power. Sexual politics. As well as plain old love.” All this and more is indeed contained in the stories in this collection. In the end, however, the editors prove as elusive as their genre when they refuse to commit themselves to a definition. “And what is romance? The stories  in this collection do not provide concrete examples, or try to. Instead they provide clues.”

Prewarned, I approached the anthology as a detective would a crime. I quickly discovered that if the editors did not attempt to provide us with a single definition of romance, the anthology provided us with a multitude of meanings. In addition to their story, each writer is given the opportunity to discuss their “thoughts on romance” at the back of the anthology. In many cases these “thoughts”, when read in conjunction with the corresponding story, provide us with at least a personal view of romance and romance writing.

In Sandra Bridekirk’s and Sandra Dunlop’s piece, “The Disappearing Act”, we have what at first appears to be a fairly typical Mills and Boon romance. Rosemary Hammond fits the formula of a major female character in a romance “tall and slim with long, wavy dark hair and smooth, soft skin. Her features were delicate but striking, with cool blue eyes off­setting the darkness of her brows and lashes . . . Many men had been interested in Rosemary since she was fifteen years old. But she laughed off their attentions, preferring to spend time with her friends and her mother.” Into her life steps Mr Morrison the new marketing manager for Intimacy Romances, the publishing company Rosemary works for.

Both players in this romance know the rules but, unlike the women in the manuscripts which pass across her desk, Rosemary also knows how to use the rules to suit her own purpose. For a while she plays the game but, just before she is supposed to melt into Mr Morrison’s arms, she throws the formula out the window and Mr Morrison is left grasping at thin air. The strength of this story lies not just in its success as parody. Some serious research into the genre of romance writing has obviously gone into it. Sandra Bridekirk, in her notes at the end of My Look’s Caress, speaks of the need to “give voice to the women who read romance and obtain a great deal of satisfaction from it.” Indeed, she argues that to some extent it is the escape value that many women find in romance fiction that many men resent. When read in this way “The Disappearing Act” takes on another meaning. Not only does Rosemary physically disappear at the end of the story, emotionally she has never really “appeared” as far as Mr Morrison is concerned. When faced with an obstinate Mr Morrison she disappeared into her romance manuscripts and used them as a tool to gain her revenge.

Beth Spencer also attempts to locate romance fiction/fantasy as an act of “resistance”. She points out that romance as a genre can be seen as an attempt to fabricate “a cultural milieu—a fiction world—in which the woman is centre stage and a woman’s desire and feelings are valued and openly acknowledged.” In her story “My Look’s Caress” Spencer, while acknowledging the possibility of resistance, also highlights the contradictions which occur when fantasy dissolves into real life.

Spencer juxtaposes a dating ritual—Mary and John going to the movies—with a young girl’s romantic/sexual fantasy. Deirdre, the young girl “is at the start of her quest for sexual knowledge.” Boys, sex and romance become linked in her developing fantasy. She is centre-stage, her desire/desirability is the catalyst for Alister’s passion until, in her fantasy, “he covered her open mouth with his own, each kiss lasting longer, desire blotting out everything.” From a position where she has control—where she “creates” Alister’s lust—Deirdre has become its victim. Her fantasy has placed her as a woman into an increasingly powerless position. For Mary and John the fantasy is concealed as they act out a ritual. But like Deirdre’s fantasy the ritual becomes a device to prolong desire or, as Spencer puts it, “a kind of extended foreplay.”

While the stories by Bridekirk/Dunlop and Spencer highlight the diversity of styles in My Look’s Caress, one of the most refreshing pieces in the anthology is Barbara Brooks’ “Journal of the Parts of the House”. Brooks has approached the notion of romance from a completely different perspective to every other writer in the collection. While most of the contributors base their attitude to romance on inter-personal relationships, Brooks speaks of her “romantic attachment to the bush.” This romantic attachment is similar, in some ways, to the romantic fantasies that some of the other contributors write of. Brooks’ romanticism is the romanticism of possibilities, of an ordinary object becoming the stimulus for the imagination to expand. “Journal of the Rest of the House” contains some of the most evocative and sensual writing in the anthology, yet Brooks is writing not about an affair or a fantasy but about three rooms in her house. The opening of the story sets the tone: “The door opens, you close it behind you and come down the dark hallway. The house is cool and empty. It opens out for you, your presence spills down the hall like water and the small adjustments start.”

A number of other writers also stand out in My Look’s Caress. Janie Conway’s story “Snaps”, Gillian Mears’ “Cousins” and Susan Hampton’s “Lace” are all pieces which stay in the mind long after you have placed the anthology back in the bookcase. Another interesting feature of the collection is that, while the majority of the contributors are women, there are a few male authors scattered through its pages. Interestingly, in general the male writers don’t seem quite as comfortable in the genre as the majority of the female contributors. Nevertheless it is encouraging to see male writers being included in a genre that many regard as pulp writing for women.

My Look’s Caress contains some fine writing and introduces a number of promising young writers. The fact that the theme of romance does not emerge as a single unifying thread is perhaps indicative of the genre as a whole. In the final instance, however, the diversity of style and content of the work collected in My Look’s Caress would suggest that one of the major constraints of romance writing has been our preconception of what romance writing actually is.

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